Ja­pan’s rul­ing party taps Yoshi­hide Suga to suc­ceed Abe

Pol­icy con­ti­nu­ity is likely, and a lead­er­ship style change is cer­tain

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY SI­MON DENYER si­mon.denyer@wash­post.com Akiko Kashi­wagi con­trib­uted to this re­port.

TOKYO — Ja­pan’s rul­ing Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party elected 71-yearold Yoshi­hide Suga to suc­ceed Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe on Mon­day in a landslide vote billed as en­sur­ing con­ti­nu­ity in eco­nomic and for­eign poli­cies.

Suga served as Abe’s right­hand man and be­hind-the-scenes fixer dur­ing Abe’s nearly eight years as prime min­is­ter, with the of­fi­cial roles of chief cab­i­net sec­re­tary and chief gov­ern­ment spokesman.

Suga re­ceived 377 votes in the lead­er­ship con­test, beat­ing Fu­mio Kishida, a for­mer for­eign min­is­ter who scored 89, and Shigeru Ishiba, a for­mer de­fense min­is­ter and critic of Abe who ob­tained 68 votes.

Abe, Ja­pan’s long­est-serv­ing prime min­is­ter, sur­prised the coun­try last month by an­nounc­ing his re­tire­ment be­cause of ill health.

“I think I have the mis­sion to carry for­ward what has been done by Prime Min­is­ter Abe and his lead­er­ship,” Suga told the party after the result was an­nounced.

Suga will be con­firmed as Ja­pan’s new leader by par­lia­ment on Wed­nes­day, with his party com­mand­ing a ma­jor­ity in Ja­pan’s lower house, and, with its coali­tion part­ner Komeito, in the up­per house.

Suga was in­ti­mately as­so­ci­ated with the Abe era, and he high­lighted its achieve­ments dur­ing tele­vised de­bates to em­pha­size that he would de­liver more of the same. On for­eign pol­icy, that means keep­ing the al­liance with the United States as the cen­ter­piece, forg­ing closer links with democ­ra­cies in the Asia-pa­cific re­gion but also main­tain­ing rea­son­ably cor­dial ties with China.

But Suga said Sun­day that he lacked Abe’s “truly amaz­ing” diplo­matic skills and ad­mit­ted that he would still con­sult with his pre­de­ces­sor, who won high marks from many Ja­panese for adeptly han­dling a tricky re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Trump.

Do­mes­ti­cally, Suga will em­pha­size eco­nomic re­vival over rigid in­fec­tion con­trol in the bat­tle against the novel coro­n­avirus, pledg­ing to “tackle the econ­omy with full force so that we can re­gain our or­di­nary life as soon as pos­si­ble.” Get­ting that bal­ance right will be his first ma­jor chal­lenge, ex­perts said.

Suga has also courted con­tro­versy by sug­gest­ing an­other rise in the con­sump­tion tax could be needed; pre­vi­ous increases un­der Abe twice caused the econ­omy to con­tract.

But while Suga is likely to fol­low Abe’s line, he comes from a very dif­fer­ent back­ground.

Abe hails from a wealthy fam­ily that has played a dom­i­nant role in politics for many decades.

Suga, the son of a straw­berry farmer and a teacher, worked in a factory after high school be­fore pay­ing his own way through col­lege and then en­ter­ing politics. He will be the first prime min­is­ter in 20 years who is not a hered­i­tary politi­cian, the Mainichi news­pa­per re­ported.

He has a rep­u­ta­tion as a re­lent­lessly hard worker who starts and ends the day with 100 sit-ups, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia, and holds meet­ings over break­fast, lunch and of­ten two din­ner meet­ings. Suga was the ar­chi­tect of Abe’s re­mark­able con­sol­i­da­tion of power within the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice, bring­ing a fac­tion-rid­den party and pow­er­ful bu­reau­cracy into line and bring­ing the me­dia to heel with car­rots and sticks. Ja­pan’s global rank­ing for press free­dom slid dur­ing Abe’s ten­ure.

Takashi Ryuzaki, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and pro­fes­sor at Ryutsu Keizai Univer­sity, said he ex­pected Suga’s ad­min­is­tra­tion to be “ex­tremely prac­ti­cal” but lack­ing a clear vi­sion. Suga’s cold­ness started to emerge dur­ing the de­bates, he said, adding that this could be­come a hand­i­cap.

“The ques­tion is how that po­lit­i­cal style of his will be seen by the pub­lic,” he said. “A strong leader is typ­i­cally also warm­hearted and has a sense of hu­mor.” But Suga has so far shown nei­ther qual­ity, he said.

Suga’s elec­tion was fa­cil­i­tated with the sort of back­room deal typ­i­cal of Ja­panese elite politics: The sup­port of Abe and 81-yearold party lu­mi­nary Toshi­hiro Nikai were cru­cial in se­cur­ing his rise to the top job.

Nikai, the LDP’S sec­re­tary gen­eral and the leader of a large fac­tion in the party, es­chewed nor­mal vot­ing pro­ce­dures for the lead­er­ship race — deny­ing rankand-file party mem­bers the right to vote di­rectly — os­ten­si­bly in the in­ter­ests of sim­plic­ity and speed, but more likely to con­trol the process and ex­clude the pop­u­lar Ishiba, whose fre­quent crit­i­cism of Abe an­gered party lead­er­ship.

In­stead, only par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and pre­fec­tural party of­fices were given the right to vote.

The party’s other main fac­tions swung into line be­hind Abe and Nikai’s choice, and fawn­ing news cov­er­age added the fin­ish­ing touches by giv­ing Suga’s im­age a makeover: A man seen as an ef­fi­cient po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tor, with a dour im­age, was reimag­ined as a hum­ble, self-made politi­cian and a hard-work­ing, tee­to­tal­ing “un­cle.”

Party mem­bers and pub­lic opin­ion then moved be­hind Suga.

Ja­pan’s next prime min­is­ter may have also ben­e­fited from a sud­den reeval­u­a­tion of the Abe era: The out­go­ing pre­mier saw his pop­u­lar­ity plum­met amid lack­lus­ter lead­er­ship dur­ing the bat­tle against the coro­n­avirus, but his rat­ings soared after he an­nounced that he was step­ping down.

Suga may surf that wave of pop­u­lar­ity to hold a snap gen­eral elec­tion.

De­fense Min­is­ter Taro Kono said last week he ex­pected Abe’s suc­ces­sor to call an elec­tion in Oc­to­ber, al­though coali­tion part­ner Komeito says it op­poses the idea, ar­gu­ing that the coun­try needs to focus on the bat­tle against the virus, ac­cord­ing to Reuters.

NI­CO­LAS DATICHE/POOL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Yoshi­hide Suga ap­pears at Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party head­quar­ters in Tokyo. Suga will be con­firmed as Ja­pan’s new leader on Wed­nes­day, with his party com­mand­ing a ma­jor­ity in the lower house of par­lia­ment, and, with its coali­tion part­ner Komeito, in the up­per house.

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